I love asking people this question. It is quite a shocker that most people can’t really answer it. Everyone talks and writes about the importance of customer development, but companies still don’t spend enough time really talking to their customers. It’s a bit like data: you won’t find a single founder who doesn’t say: “Yeah! Analytics, metrics, definitely!”, but how many startups are doing a decent job of tracking their performance?
From all the articles I’ve read about this subject in the last few years, I haven’t seen many where other companies have shared their experiences in a way that I’ve been able to learn from. That’s why I decided to share how we at Revue talk to and learn from our users every single day (yes, even on weekends). If you are curious about how we do this (with Intercom, an open roadmap on Trello and a user channel on Slack) and how this is working for us, then keep reading.
Customers are Real People
When I was still working for my own startup (Swipe & Shop – Tinder for fashion), I really enjoyed having a personal relationship with our users. We would invite them over every other week and learn from them, talk about designs, features and about online shopping in general. I think we are all very familiar with the temptation to dive into Mixpanel for hours, or the excitement when you see your A/B test results. I do a happy dance when I find out that we’ve improved our conversion rate by 3% this month. Without question, those are the moments of joy.
However, if we are not careful, we become addicted to the next data set and we forget that customers are not IDs in Intercom or a long list of items in a spreadsheet. Customers are real people.
Finding the Early Adopter
Revue is a platform for curating content, allowing users to create well-designed newsletters in a simple and convenient way. We launched in 2015 and currently have around 25,000 users varying from journalists, writers, bloggers, designers, investors, startup founders, coffee experts, artificial intelligence enthusiasts, music lovers, and many others, sending out more than 2.5 million personal newsletters a month.
After I became part of Revue, one of the first tasks I undertook was to talk to its early adopters. In the first month I did around 50 interviews with users, all taped with a tool called Lookback. I wanted to get to know the customers better and learn what they had in common. I needed to find out why they were sending out a newsletter in the first place, what their goals and problems were, why they used Revue for this and what the process of creating their issues looked like. I wanted to learn what was important for them in order to help them both now and in the future.
Skype interview with a user, taped via Lookback
I found out how important their own personal newsletter was for some of the thought leaders I talked to. This was something I hadn’t realized at the start. Consequently, this suggested to us that we should rethink some of the branding on the platform. It also taught us that all of the users encounter a moment of joy when people subscribe to their newsletter, but even more when people interact with them about it. A tap on the shoulder, a simple “I love your newsletter”, a kind tweet, a reply to the email. This interactivity was really a “wow moment” for me and it became something we now focus on.
Asking the Right Questions
Luckily Revue was already a heavy user of Intercom, a customer messaging platform, which for me is pretty much like finding a goldmine! You can send direct messages to users, or even automatic emails. But users can also reach out to tell you they have a problem, a request, or just to give you some feedback.
Of course, they will never tell you directly what to build. This is not their job. They are not designers, nor product developers (even though we have many on the platform). The features your customers ask for are never as interesting as why they want these particular features. What are they trying to achieve? They can tell you all about their problem and why the current solution is not good enough. It is up to us to build something faster, bigger and better. It is all about asking the right questions.
I love this conversation between Des Traynor (Intercom) and Slack. It is not about the solution, it is about the use case.
In the beginning of this year we opened up the roadmap. Users can now vote on features on our Trello board. A public roadmap means it has become much easier to get helpful feedback from customers since we can now gauge whether they’re excited about our plans or if they would rather see you tackle something else first. These vote counts are a factor we take into account when deciding what to build next. Users love being able to see our roadmap and refer to it quite frequently. It’s often a kick-off point for some really great conversations, but also a nice way to show them how we use their feedback and that we listen.
When we launched the open roadmap it was clear that many customers were waiting for the feature ‘to be able to work on multiple issues’ as it became the ticket with the most votes on the Trello board. It was also interesting to see how we as a team responded to this. Revue’s founder Martijn got so excited by this feedback that he ended up building this feature on a Friday night. We officially launched it the following week. When we announced it via a message on Intercom we received so many happy messages from users.
Our latest project is a user channel on Slack. In February we invited 40 users as “Single-Channel Guests” to a #userchannel on our team as an experiment. This Slack channel became the hub for various conversations and questions. Users can give their feedback about things we are working on. We show them designs, we talk about their needs, we ask them how many times they encounter a problem, and how they are currently solving this on their own. Customers can also DM us directly, and they even ask each other questions on how to grow their subscriber list or what integrations to use for their newsletter.
This customer-customer connection is not really something we planned ourselves, but it just happened (on its own). What we do try is to create a comfort zone, with just enough anonymity to allow honesty. We are still searching for the best way to use the channel, so if you have any thoughts on this please share them.
When you get to know your customers a bit better you will also encounter some vocal champion users. These are the users who give a lot of feedback, share many problems and ask for loads of features. When looking into this it is important to understand who is giving this feedback (is this person really your target user?) and how many people are actually encountering this as a real problem. The worst thing you can do is work on every request you get. That would be unworkable.
Our workflow looks like this: we tag the conversation in Intercom, so afterwards we can easily see how many people mention the same thing. I try to understand what job they are trying to get done and make sure to add it to our backlog board on Trello. If we find it interesting I make sure to research it more by using private messages on Intercom, setting up interviews, using the Slack group, or setting up an experiment to test it. If we decide to put it on our roadmap we also post it on our public roadmap, so we can gauge how important it is for users in comparison with other features that are planned.
Does this mean that we’re not data driven or that we don’t do experiments? On the contrary. Numbers and behavior are more reliable feedback indicators than words alone, which is why we combine the two. It makes sure that words match their actions, but also enables us to understand ‘why’ our data is showing us something.
To sum it all up, let’s not only talk and write about how important it is to talk to customers, but start by just doing it! Talk! Learn! And take action!
It is all about being approachable, asking the right questions, and doing something with the data you receive. But at the same time it is also about approaching users yourself. Decide what you want to learn and just send out a few emails and talk to the people actually using your product.
It sounds scary but I truly believe that you can only build a product that works better for people by involving them in its development. You can achieve that not only by being responsive to their questions through customer support but also by hearing out their feature requests, ideas, and maintaining the conversation with them while you build the product.